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Killer concerto, life-affirming symphony: Kozhukhin, Saraste and the BBC SO

By , 07 May 2022

Which is the most challenging of all piano concertos? Is it the one with the most notes, the fastest tempi, the most outrageous leaps for both hands or simply the longest in duration? Obvious candidates spring to mind, but irrespective of the criteria applied Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in G minor is surely a major contender.

Leaving aside the feats of prestidigitation from Denis Kozhukhin, accompanied here by the BBC Symphony Orchestra directed by Jukka-Pekka Saraste, I think it was the multitude of moods the soloist conjured up, more than the myriads of cascading notes, that was the standout factor in this performance. Kozhukhin began almost dreamily, tip-toeing from the shadows into early-morning shafts of sunlight radiated by the softly shimmering strings, with astonishing pre-echoes of what Ravel was later to do in his G major concerto.

Then, with one of those touches of legerdemain which Prokofiev in particular displays so frequently, we were into a sardonic march, elements of piquancy giving colour and edge to the textures. Although the orchestra as a unit scarcely detracts from the role of the soloist as a narrator – the composer marks these passages narrante – it is important that conductor and soloist maintain unanimity of purpose. Saraste and his players worked hand-in-glove with Kozhukhin throughout. 

The first movement cadenza, which takes up all of four minutes, is like the opening Allegro of a grand piano sonata. It had all the ferocious energy which the colossale marking suggests, but Kozhukhin also stressed the rhapsodic in his hushed control of the dynamics, like pure mountain water trickling over the scree. He resisted the temptation to take the Scherzo, a Vivace with a vengeance, if ever there was one, as fast as possible, maintaining instead rock-solid solidity in the succession of semi-quavers, the octave leaps cast off as dizzyingly as any high-wire act. 

The third movement brought those moments of grotesque elegance, or elegant grotesquerie, which reminded me of Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre. Here too the emotional colouring shifted almost imperceptibly, from dark and angry to cheery and remorseful, from the resentful to the resolute. In the Finale, where the composer’s marking is Allegro tempestoso, there was a quite eerie awareness of the tradition of full-blooded Russian romanticism from which Prokofiev had emerged, Rachmaninov and Scriabin shining through the textures, not least in the beautifully voiced half-tones.  After all this enthralling pianism, it was an additional treat to hear the crystalline purity of Kozhukhin’s encore, Grieg’s To Spring.

Daniel Kidane’s Be Still is a child of recent lockdowns. In its seven minutes, the scoring for strings and a single percussion player emphasises a meditative quality. The music turned on its own axis, echoes of Ligeti, inhabiting the spheres above all human activity. 

Saraste’s reading of the Symphony no. 4 by Nielsen was brisk and bracing. The work made a perfect complement to the concerto, in the sense that ideas keep bubbling up to the surface and do not yield to any moderating influence. They are simply there, temperamental, effervescent, irrepressible, the inextinguishable life-force that the composer wished to convey. Nonetheless, Saraste’s elegant and flowing beat found plenty of time to pick out some of the felicities of the scoring: in the opening movement the very soft flute and horn solos set against susurrating strings, the rasping quality of the interjections from the violas, almost mimicking gunfire, the impassioned sweep of the violins at the start of the slow movement, with darker flecks of colour from trombones and tuba. As this symphonic journey reached its triumphant conclusion, the power and precision of the two timpanists reaffirmed life itself.

****1
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“tip-toeing from the shadows into early-morning shafts of sunlight...”
Reviewed at Barbican Hall, London on 6 May 2022
Kidane, Be Still
Prokofiev, Piano Concerto no. 2 in G minor, Op.16
Grieg, Lyric Pieces: Til våren (To spring), Op.43 no.6
Nielsen, Symphony no. 4, "The Inextinguishable," Op.29
Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Conductor
Denis Kozhukhin, Piano
Spectacular Vaughan Williams from the BBC SO and Ryan Wigglesworth
****1
Scaling the summit: Sakari Oramo conducts Langaard
****1
Polished performances from Francesca Dego and the BBC SO at the Anvil
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Storgårds explores Shostakovich in the shadow of Stalin
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